Morris County Surrogate Heather Darling has written a letter urging Governor Phil Murphy, who ran for office on a platform of “improving the lives of people with disabilities” as a top priority; and Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL), to restore programs that employed thousands of individuals with disabilities until they were shut down in March when in a letter from Asaro-Angelo it was ordered that all Extended Employment Programs cease on or before March 17th.
“These are crucial employment programs. Having a daily and weekly regimen plays a key role in the lives of New Jersey’s citizens with disabilities, and these jobs help many to establish some measure of independent living as well as a sense of responsibility and making a genuine contribution to society,” said Darling.
Nearly 3,000 individuals with disabilities have been displaced from jobs made available to them by contracts issued through supported employment programs overseen by the NJDOL with the cooperation of the state Department of Human Services. “They were sent home on or before March 17th as a result of Labor Commissioner Asaro-Angelo’s order to cease all extended employment programs. Most of these positions remained open throughout the pandemic giving no consideration for the decision to work or not work to the people with disabilities or their families,” Darling explained.
New Jersey has spent years helping people with disabilities overcome employment discrimination, and on April 2012, then Gov. Chris Christie signed an order officially declaring New Jersey an “Employment First” state, establishing that employment is the first and preferred post-education activity for everyone, including people with disabilities. But the programs designed to allow many access to jobs have now been suspended, with no return date in sight.
“What makes this even harder to accept is the fact that the discrimination in this case comes from the state, the very entity that should be protecting the rights of people with disabilities. How is this discrimination justified by the state,” Surrogate Darling wrote to the Governor and the NJDOL Commissioner in a recent letter.
Nonprofit community rehabilitation programs that are responsible for the services provided to people with disabilities have put in place lengthy and detailed protocols and best practices with regard to COVID-19 that have been reviewed and supported by a variety of disability and public health professionals. Returning people to work programs can be done safely and effectively, and the individuals are eager to return to their jobs. “Although the initial intent (of the program suspension) was to protect, the harm to members of this community as a result of the continuation of this discriminatory policy far outweighs the benefit at this time,” Darling wrote in her letter.